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When the past is present…

“…The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” James Baldwin


Campus Racism Protests Didn’t Come Out Of Nowhere, And They Aren’t Going Away Quickly

Mizzou seems to have catalyzed years of tension over inequality and race.

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Residents of Poor Neighborhoods See More Than Their Share of Costly Municipal Citations

By Brendan O’Brien, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

Johnny Ruffin reached into his wallet and pulled out $35…defiantly displaying most of the money he had to his name for anyone to see.

About 10 minutes earlier, Ruffin explained his financial plight to a Milwaukee Municipal Court judge who had none of it, telling him that he must pay $120, the last of the $1,200 in fines and fees that he had amassed over the last decade for various minor traffic and drug offenses.

“Tickets have just built up. I have been paying since 2005 and I still can’t believe I’m not caught up… every time I pay $60, $60, $60,” he said, adding that he doesn’t know how he’ll find $120.

Photo Credit: Sue Vliet

Photo Credit: Sue Vliet

The 35-year-old black man is no saint. But the two-time felon has been trying to make amends by working a full-time job at a gun factory and routinely making payments to the court system to avoid jail time, despite claiming that the amount he was told he still owed is inaccurate.

“A lot of the stuff they got me on wasn’t even me…” he said. “I’m locked into the system until I can get it all cleaned up. I’m going to be stuck for awhile. I’m chalking it up to the system.”

Ruffin’s situation is emblematic of the financial entanglement many poor black men have gotten themselves into with the city’s municipal judicial system, according to local experts who say the system criminalizes poverty by levying monetary penalties, driver’s license suspensions and ultimately jail time on defendants who do not have the means to pay their citations.

“This is a part of the cycle of poverty,” said John Pawasarat, director of the Employment and Training Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“It’s a pretty irresponsible way to do business if you’re a public body dealing with the citizens in your city. These people are on the fringe and this is the last thing they need,” said Pawasarat…

Despite the rampant poverty that grips Milwaukee’s inner city, citations that carry a relatively hefty fine are one of the city’s methods of choice to punish offenders for non-criminal infractions.

For instance, a disorderly conduct citation carries a fine of at least $200, which could amount to two-thirds of a weekly pay check for an individual who earns $7.25 an hour, the minimum wage for a full-time job. Defendants who are found guilty must pay a fine or face a suspended driver’s license or jail time.

According to court data obtained by NNS…the Milwaukee Police Department writes a disproportionate number of citations in some of the city’s poorest areas. Although only 12 percent of Milwaukee residents live in two of the city’s poorest ZIP codes…people in those ZIP codes received 17 percent of the 430,000 tickets written from 2011 to 2014.

The disparity in citations by income is also illustrated by comparing the number of tickets written in the 53206 ZIP code, where half the residents live in poverty, to the number written in the 53215 ZIP code, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood where about a third of residents live in poverty, the same as the citywide average. Police wrote about one ticket for every four people in 53206 compared to one ticket for every 11 people in 53215 in 2014.

A typical day at the Milwaukee Municipal Court…begins when dozens of defendants…travel up to the courtrooms. Once on the second floor, they file through a security checkpoint, where they place their metal items into a plastic bin and walk through a metal detector…

Moments later those assembled in the Branch 2 courtroom rise to their feet as Judge Derek Mosley strolls in and takes his seat in front and high above the court. For several hours, he and two other judges work their way through a long docket of cases, hearing the constant drumbeat of financial despair on the part of many defendants.

“I get it. I get it,” Mosley said, back in his chamber… “It starts with jobs. The problem we have is that the individuals getting cited probably wouldn’t be getting cited if they had employment… and were stakeholders in the community…”

With this in mind, judges try to incentivize employment by waiving fines for defendants who come back to court with proof that they got a job or enrolled in school.

“The court is not going to get any money, but who cares?” Mosley said. “It reduces recidivism because (employed defendants) don’t come back. I have no control over bringing businesses to Milwaukee…but I can try to get people to jobs to better themselves.”

Some violations directly involve victims…while others are victimless crimes… Mosley said he tries to strike a fine balance between fairness for poor defendants and justice for victims, many of whom are also poor and minority.

“When I get an assault and battery from the 53206 ZIP code, the defendant and the victim look exactly the same,” Mosley said. “I look at the back of the ticket and look at the victim (many of whom) are black or Mexican and poor. It’s hard for me to tell the victim of an assault and battery that (the defendant) lives in the 06 zip code and I have to help them out.”

Even if defendants do not plan to fight their cases, Mosley implores them to come to court, where they can make arrangements to pay their obligations and where he can reduce fines and demerit points…

He said, however, that defendants typically fear the court system and believe that if they show up, they will be taken into custody if they have a municipal warrant against them.

“We have a policy in municipal court that if you walk in, you will walk out,” Mosley said, noting that judges will lift all warrants against individuals if they pay $20 toward their fines, regardless of how much they owe…

Police and local lawmakers have begun to address some of the city’s citation practices for minor, nonviolent infractions. Police officials have said they’ve made a concerted effort not to ticket for minor traffic offenses over the last few years, decreasing the overall number of tickets written by 46 percent from 2011 to 2014. In addition, the Milwaukee Common Council significantly slashed the fine for possessing a small amount of marijuana.

“One of the issues that continues to come up is the injustice many people feel who live in communities that are overly policed and where ordinances and laws are stringently enforced,” said Ald. Ashanti Hamilton… “We have pretty much criminalized where you live and what you look like.”

The intersection between race, poverty and the local judicial system has been a concern of the Justice Initiatives Institute…which recently published a report examining defendants who were jailed after they failed to appear in court and pay their fines.

The report examined the economic and demographic characteristics of defendants processed through a courtroom in the county jail separate from the main court facility in the Milwaukee Police Department, from 2008 to 2013. It studied 26,000 defendants, most of whom were arrested on a municipal warrant after not paying a citation and spending two or three days in jail on each occasion, earning time served, which reduces the amount of money owed for a fine.

The study found about 85 percent never paid anything on their citations; about two-thirds of those jailed did not have a job. Of those who were employed, 40 percent worked low-paying jobs. Black men had seven times as many cases associated with citations as white men.

“The trends in the unemployment rates in Milwaukee mirrored the trends in how people were appearing in our study. When the unemployment rates went up, the number of people in our study…was going up. So it’s linked to poverty,” said Marilyn Walczak…

According to court officials, the city’s jailing policy changed in May 2012. Before the change, defendants for the most part were eligible to be released on a recognizance bond when the first warrant was issued for not paying their fines. When subsequent warrants were issued, they were held until they paid a cash bond. Now defendants are eligible for a signature bond the first three times they are taken into custody on a warrant for not paying their fines…

The city spent more than $10 million to jail the 26,000 defendants for not paying about $5.7 million they owed from 2008 to 2013…

The court itself earns a profit each year, according to a cost-benefit document drafted by the city’s budget office in November 2014. The document showed that the court earned a net of between $1.5 and $2.8 million each year from 2009 to 2013, although that does not take into account several direct and indirect costs such as expenses associated with paying for collections, bailiffs and city attorneys.

“Our revenue goes into the city’s general fund,” Islo said, noting that the money from citations helps fund city departments that do not generate revenue on their own.

The city’s Judiciary and Legislation Committee recently passed a resolution asking for the State of Wisconsin to allow the city to apply a surcharge on each municipal fine. The funds would pay to store data from police-worn body cameras, which officials expect to cost $1.7 million.

“The people you are taking the money from… very often do not have the financial resources to pay their fines,” said Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin

State law allows for defendants to apply for an indigence determination and makes available community service and alternative sanctions rather than monetary penalties to those who cannot pay.

But very few defendants take advantage of these alternatives. In the impoverished 53206 ZIP code, only 723 defendants who received 41,900 citations from 2011 to 2014 were offered and agreed to alternative sanctions…

“I have seen instances in Milwaukee where people are not advised and…no effort is made to communicate with them about their ability to pay or alternatives [available] to them if they can’t pay,” said James Gramling, a former Milwaukee Municipal Court judge…

Another sign that defendants do not know their rights is that only 994 of 434,463 citations written were adjudicated in a court trial from 2011 to 2014. Part of the reason for this may be the wording on the citation itself…

The citation doesn’t make it clear that defendants have the right to appear to contest the charge against them, added Walczak…

“When you are first given a ticket, it says that you don’t have to appear,” she said. “But what that means is that if you want to admit you’re wrong and pay the ticket, you don’t have to appear and you can just send your money in. But I don’t think people understand that.”

Walczak also blames the fact that there is no online form designated solely for defendants who want to apply for an indigence determination. There is a form to apply to make installment payments. In addition, an informational pamphlet available in court makes no mention of alternative sanctions for people who are indigent, although a third of the city’s residents live in poverty.

Court officials “don’t take time to fairly and aggressively determine ability to pay. They put the burden of that on the defendant,” she said. “If the (defendant) doesn’t bring it up in court, they don’t bring it up.”

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Racism Between the Goal Posts

By Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard

“Black people aren’t allowed to make mistakes,” Prince declared last year, in a statement that spoke for many. Screw up once, the thinking goes, and you’re out, having confirmed the view of many whites that you didn’t deserve a shot in the first place.

Washington Redskins quarterbacks Robert Griffin III (L) and Kirk Cousins.

Washington Redskins quarterbacks Robert Griffin III (L) and Kirk Cousins.

New research provides evidence of that destructive dynamic on one of America’s largest stages: the National Football League.

A new study concludes that black NFL quarterbacks are roughly twice as likely to be benched the following week than their white colleagues.*

After taking a series of variables into account (including age, experience, and injury), Assumption College economist Brian Volz found a pattern of player replacement that suggests systematic racial discrimination. He also reports that, in terms of on-field performance, teams pay a price for this behavior.

Writing in the Journal of Sports Economics, Volz begins by noting that, over the last 13 seasons, the percentage of African-American starting quarterbacks ranged from 16 to 28 percent—startlingly low numbers, considering that about two-thirds of NFL players are black.

To determine whether this reflects racial discrimination, he analyzed data from 2001 to 2009, looking specifically at quarterbacks who started the first game of the season. (He reasoned that those whose first game as a starter come later in the season may simply be replacing an injured or otherwise indisposed player.)

He then took into account a number of non-racial factors that could influence a quarterback being benched, including his age, experience, and performance; the quality of the second-string quarterback who replaced him; and of course any injuries he had sustained. In addition, he looked at the percentage of black residents in a team’s metropolitan area, to see if the racial make-up of the fan base had an impact on the decision.

Volz found that, once all the variables were factored in, “black starting quarterbacks are 1.98 to 2.46 times more likely to be benched the next week” than white quarterbacks with approximately equivalent skills. “This implies that black quarterbacks may face some level of discrimination in the NFL,” he writes…

The results suggest some whites feel a degree of discomfort seeing an African American in an on-field leadership role, and this puts pressure on black quarterbacks to produce quickly or be replaced. Whether the coaches and team owners are responding in a personally racist way, or believe they are reflecting the perceived preferences of the fans, is not clear. But either is equally indefensible.

Given the fact professional football is dealing with a lot of problems at the moment, one hesitates to pile on. But this pernicious pattern needs to be examined, and the discrimination it reveals should be ruled out of bounds.

Read the full article here.

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Black Student Activists Stand Against Racist Cultures on Campus

From Yale to Missouri, college campuses are becoming ground zero in challenging white supremacy and institutional racism.

By , The Root

The radical spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement touched college campuses this past week in high-profile demonstrations against a culture of racism infecting higher education.

The University of Missouri in Columbia…has become ground zero for black students challenging white supremacy and institutional racism. Remarkably, for 2015, they’ve been joined by members of the university’s football team, who have vowed to go on strike until the school’s president, Tim Wolfe, resigns.

African Americans and their coaches and team members will remain on strike until University of Missouri's president, Tim Wolfe, resigns. (Photo credit: Gary Pinkel)

African Americans and their coaches and team members will remain on strike until University of Missouri’s president, Tim Wolfe, resigns. (Photo credit: Gary Pinkel)

Wolfe has been the target of black students who have organized nonviolent actions for racial justice on campus, led by one student who is on a hunger strike to protest Wolfe’s lack of leadership after a spate of racially motivated incidents.

The participation of black student-athletes has drawn national attention and is a hopeful sign of how movement-building over the past year has penetrated the consciousness of the entire African-American community as well as the wider American public…

While students and athletes have united around pursuing the ouster of the university president in Missouri, at Yale University this past week, 300 African-American undergraduates demanded answers from administrators…for failing to combat a pervasive climate of racism.

Black-student outrage partially stemmed from an email written by the associate master of one of Yale’s residential colleges that urged students to be open-minded about racially offensive Halloween costumes. Black students found the message tone-deaf to the almost ritualized pain they experience on campus when white students engage in stereotyping of black culture and bodies.

Black women at Yale have shared stories of racial harassment that seem to illustrate a pattern of anti-black racism on the New Haven, Conn., campus. The visceral pain and outcries of black students led Salovey to admit…that the school had “failed” them…

Some of these same issues confronting black students at Missouri and Yale came into sharp relief for me as I spoke at predominantly white Macalester College…  Over 300 mostly black students from surrounding colleges attended the Mahmoud El-Kati Lecture, named after a distinguished retired professor of black studies, who was also in attendance. My talk, “From Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter,” touched on the way in which contemporary Black Lives Matter activists are channeling, in new, important and innovative ways, the organizing traditions of the civil rights and black power era.

Photo Credit: Twitter user HeMadeAKing

Photo Credit: Twitter User HeMadeAKing

The enthusiasm of the young people during and after the speech was extraordinary. Black students…are hungry to understand the history of black struggle in America and globally, and how they can transform the racist culture they encounter on college campuses every day.

The social-justice consciousness of the Missouri football team should be applauded, but the team’s stand against racism is part of a larger national movement that touches every institution in American society.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement’s biggest impact has been in awakening the political consciousness of all Americans, especially students of color. The racial-justice movement exploding on college campuses…is the reflection of a flourishing national movement for the radical political transformation of racist institutions, and echoes the heady years of the black power era, when students of all backgrounds tapped into their power to change the world by reimagining the institutions that surrounded and controlled them.

Black students then, as now, led this charge. This movement continues in our own time in ways that are inspiring civil rights veterans and younger people who have become awakened to racism’s punishing depths and frightening breadth.

Read the full article here.

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Ferguson Police Seek To Restore Trust With New Initiative

By the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Huffington Post

FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) — Police in Ferguson are vowing to walk the streets and talk to residents more often as part of an effort to repair frayed relations with the community more than a year after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.

Ferguson Interim Police Chief Andre Anderson

                                                                           Ferguson Interim Police Chief Andre Anderson

About 130 people turned out Saturday at Greater Grace Church for the inaugural presentation of the neighborhood policing plan, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. The presentation, the first in a series, comes as the St. Louis suburb works to rebuild trust after Brown, who was black, was shot to death by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in August 2014 during a confrontation in the street.

The Ferguson neighborhood policing program calls for teams of officers to be assigned to a specific area, where they would build relationships with residents and businesses.

“We want to get the community more involved in our efforts to develop a better relationship,” Ferguson Interim Police Chief Andre Anderson said at the meeting. “We know we can’t do it without the community.”

Anderson, who became interim police chief in July, said his program was based on old-style policing in which officers would walk the streets and engage residents in conversations.

“I think we are on the right track,” he said. “The reality is that the police department can’t do it alone.”…

In a question-and-answer session, Rod Winterberg, 70, wanted to know if police had enough staff to deal with crime in the city. His wife, Sharon Winterberg, 73, held out a piece of paper that listed six different times guns had gone off in their neighborhood since Sept. 12.

Other residents voiced concerns about how they said some officers continued to treat residents roughly despite assurances of change.

“Culture takes times to change,” Anderson told the audience, which was about equally split between whites and African-Americans. “It’s slow. Training is going to help develop better relationships with officers.”…

The goal of Saturday’s meeting was to jumpstart community involvement in the new policing initiative. Volunteers drawn from the event will form a steering committee that will hold five monthly meetings — starting in January — to draft a plan on how to implement the community policing plan.

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Mississippi flag backer accused of tossing bomb in Walmart

By the Associated Press,

A man who’s known for flying a 4-foot-long Mississippi state flag on his car has been accused of bombing a Walmart in Tupelo

Marshall E. Leonard poses for mug shots at the Lee County jail.

Marshall E. Leonard poses for mug shots at the Lee County jail.

because the chain stopped selling the flag, the police chief said Monday.

The explosive made a loud bang but did no damage when it was thrown early Sunday into the 24-hour Walmart, Police Chief Bart Aguirre said Monday. He said bomb technicians reported that the package held enough explosive material to damage the store if it had been assembled differently.

Marshall E. Leonard of Tupelo, a northeast Mississippi city of 34,500, was jailed on a charge of detonating an explosive, and police were searching his car and home, Aguirre said.

Walmart is among retailers that stopped selling merchandise bearing reproductions of the Confederate battle flag — which makes up the upper left section of the Mississippi state flag — after the June 17 killing of nine black worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Some Mississippi cities and institutions also have stopped flying the state flag.

“He’s a strong supporter of keeping that flag flying. … This is his way of bringing attention to that,” Aguirre said…

Aguirre says Leonard allegedly lit a newspaper-wrapped package and threw it into the store around 1:30 a.m. Sunday.

“An employee was sitting in the vestibule taking a break,” Aguirre said. “He told the employee to run — that he was going to blow the place up. He throws this package into the front entrance of Walmart. He flees and the employee flees.”

He said Leonard’s silver Mazda is bedecked with stickers of the Mississippi state flag and the Confederate battle flag, and it sports a big state flag on a flexible pole. Leonard was arrested about 2 a.m. for running a red light near the Walmart, Aguirre said.

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Hillary Clinton Meets With Mothers Of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown And Tamir Rice

“It doesn’t matter what color we are, I felt that she really understand where we are coming from,” Rice’s mother said.

The Huffington Post

Hillary Clinton held a private meeting in Chicago on Monday with the families of prominent victims of recent gun violence.

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks in Atlanta. (Photo Credit: David Goldman)

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks in Atlanta. (Photo Credit: David Goldman)

The mothers of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice were all present at the meeting with the former secretary of state.

The women discussed racial inequality, criminal justice reform, and gun control…

“She is a mother and she is a woman and I felt she understood where we were coming from,” said Samaria Rice… “It doesn’t matter what color we are, I felt that she really understand where we are coming from.”

Rice’s son, Tamir, was the 12-year-old Ohio boy fatally shot by police last year for wielding what later turned out to be a BB gun. Brown, 18, was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson last year in Ferguson, Missouri.. In 2012, Martin, 17, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman…for appearing “suspicious.” Davis, also 17, was shot and killed after an argument…with Florida resident Michael David Dunn…

Clinton has been vocally supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement for racial justice, which gained prominence following Martin’s death.

“We all have a responsibility to face these hard truths about race and justice honestly and directly,” she said in a July speech.

When Clinton met with Black Lives Matter activists during a campaign stop in August, she offered tips on how to best get their message across.

Her outreach efforts have paid off. The former first lady and New York senator is leading with black voters in recent 2016 Democratic polls.


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Lawyer for Teen in SC School Assault Video Speaks on Injuries She Suffered, Whether She Is an Orphan and Fake GoFundMe Pages

On Thursday a lawyer for the 16-year-old South Carolina teen who was assaulted by a Spring Valley High School resource officer spoke with radio host Joe Madison.

By , The Root


Attorney and state Rep. Todd Rutherford (center) with fellow lawmakers at the South Carolina Statehouse July 9, 2015, in Columbia SEAN RAYFORD/GETTY IMAGES

Attorney and state Rep. Todd Rutherford (center) with fellow lawmakers at the South Carolina Statehouse July 9, 2015, in Columbia

On Thursday a lawyer for the South Carolina teen who was violently assaulted by a school resource officer appeared on activist Joe Madison’s radio show on Sirius to clarify remarks posted about the teen and the incident.

On Monday, video of the incident between Spring Valley High School resource officer Ben Fields and the teen went viral. The footage showed the officer slamming the teen out of her seat and then tossing her across the room. Since the release of the footage, Fields has been fired from the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, and the FBI and U.S. Justice Department are investigating the incident to determine whether the former senior deputy will face charges.

In a New York Daily News article posted Wednesday, attorney Todd Rutherford was quoted as saying that the 16-year-old girl was an orphan who recently lost her mother and grandmother. In the interview with Madison, Rutherford stated that the girl’s biological mother and grandmother were alive.

The Daily News corrected the story but noted that the child is in foster care. The lawyer for the girl, however, refused to state whether this is true. When asked directly whether the girl is in foster care, the lawyer replied, “I can tell you that her mother and her grandmother are not dead and that I met with her at 5:30 in the morning with the mother and the child.”

Rutherford noted that several people have attempted to create fake crowdfunding pages, making it difficult for the family to set up an actual page to help cover legal costs. “We are trying to set up a GoFundMe page; it’s difficult because I think so many people are fraudulently trying to set them up, so GoFundMe has stopped it,” he said. “We are working with them trying to do that, and we should have that up and running today”…


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Alex La Guma: The Greatest Novelist Whose Name You’ve Never Heard Before

Thirty years after his death, the name of South Africa’s Alex La Guma as a novelist, an activist in the liberation struggle and a remarkable human being should be on all of our lips.

By , The Root


Editor’s note: The spelling of the ethnic term “Coloured,” used within the context of South African history and culture, reflects the writer’s preference.

October 2015 marks the 30th anniversary of the death of one of the world’s great novelists, arguably the greatest Africa—let alone South Africa—has ever produced, a man who was not only a prodigiously talented writer but also a valiant hero of the anti-apartheid struggle.

Alex La Guma (1925-1985) is today, sadly, a forgotten colossus, but in the 1960s and ’70s, he was indubitably the black Dickens, with his fiction containing the sweep and moral power of his acclaimed Victorian predecessor. An astonishing creative artist as well as an ardent freedom fighter, he was the author of five masterful novels—A Walk in the Night (1962), And a Threefold Cord (1964), The Stone Country (1967), In the Fog of the Seasons’ End (1972) and Time of the Butcherbird (1979).

With his genius for creating vivid characters amid the brutality of apartheid, his compassion for the poor and the oppressed, his masterful storytelling technique and his unforgettably sensuous, beautifully ornate prose style, La Guma has seldom been bettered in any age or on any continent. Thirty years after his death, the name Alex La Guma as a novelist, an activist in the liberation struggle and a remarkable human being should be on all of our lips…

When his debut novella, A Walk in the Night, was published in 1962, a new star of black South African writing came into view with astonishing alacrity. A remarkably assured first work, written while he was under house arrest for anti-apartheid activism, it articulated many of the themes that would come to dominate La Guma’s writing: fierce opposition to apartheid, a lyrical celebration of the working-class Coloured community, a potent use of nature as a mirror for the psychology of his protagonists, and the use of literature as a tool for liberty, equality and human dignity, all distinctively couched in seductively ornate prose and heavily infused with a Dickensian realism.

Hewn from the miasma of poverty and oppression that was the enclave of District 6, A Walk in the Night unrepentantly celebrates the lives, hopes and fragile dreams of the down-and-outs, prostitutes and gangsters who inhabited this tawdry, bohemian slum. It is the story of Michael Adonis, a young Coloured man who, after being sacked from his factory job following a confrontation with his racist Afrikaner boss, embarks upon a nocturnal odyssey of crime and murder amid the neighborhood’s squalid, insalubrious tenement blocks. The horrors of racism, patricide and the pain of rootlessness all play their part in the novel’s terse, bleak greatness…


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Obama Breaks Down ‘Black Lives Matter’ During Panel on Criminal-Justice Reform

While calling for strong, effective and fair law enforcement, the president spoke extensively on the intersection between race and the criminal-justice system.

By , The Root

To President Barack Obama, the Black Lives Matter creed-turned-movement makes sense. Speaking on a panel on criminal justice, the president attempted to explain the difference between and relevancy of the BLM mantra versus the counter chants of “All lives matter.”

“I think everybody understands all lives matter,” the president said. “I think the reason that the organizers used the phrase ‘Black lives matter’ was not because they said they were suggesting nobody else’s lives matter; rather, what they were suggesting was, there is a specific problem that is happening in the African-American community that’s not happening in other communities. And that is a legitimate issue that we’ve got to address…”

President Barack Obama speaking at an event about criminal-justice reform on the White House campus. (Photo credit: Brendan Smialowski)

President Barack Obama speaking at an event about criminal-justice reform on the White House campus. (Photo credit: Brendan Smialowski)

“One of the ways of avoiding the politics of this and losing the moment is everybody just stepping back for a second and understanding that the African-American community is not just making this up, and it’s not just something being politicized; it’s real and there’s a history behind it.  And we have to take it seriously,” he insisted.

Still, the president made sure to give a nod to the tough job police officers face and the difficult decisions they often have to make, saying that it was imperative not to “paint with a broad brush, [and to] understand that the overwhelming majority of law enforcement is doing the right thing and wants to do the right thing…”

During the panel, Obama acknowledged that the goals for criminal-justice reform in the United States would have to include fairness—regardless of race, wealth and other identities; proportionality of punishment to crime; and the recognition that incarceration is not the only solution to reducing crime and violence in communities.

“If [incarceration is] the only tool…then we’re missing opportunities for us to create safer communities through drug diversion and treatment, for example, or through more effective re-entry programs, or getting to high school kids or middle school or elementary school kids earlier so that they don’t get in trouble in the first place, and how are we resourcing that,” the president said…

“I think it’s smart for us to start the debate around nonviolent drug offenders. You are right that that’s not going to suddenly halve our incarceration rate, but … if we do that right, and we are reinvesting in treatment, and we are reinvesting resources in police departments having more guys and gals on the street who are engaging in community policing, and that’s improving community relations, then that becomes the foundation upon which the public has confidence in potentially taking a future step and looking at sentencing changes down the road,” he added.

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